The VA Grand Challenge: Looking for Love in The Wrong Places

To solve a problem as complex and critical as veteran suicide, throw out the procurement playbook.

Even before the current pandemic, our nation’s veterans were killing themselves at an alarming rate. So we were happy to learn that the Veterans Affairs Department is contemplating a “grand challenge” to develop evidence-based solutions to prevent suicide and reduce suicidal ideation.  We applaud VA for seeking help, and we join former Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Steve Kelman in supporting VA’s embrace of prize contests to solve this seemingly intractable problem.  

But we worry that VA’s request for information seeking assistance administering the contest is misguided. Specifically, we fear that reliance on traditional procurement tools to outsource to a management consultant is unlikely to spark the strategic innovation VA needs and this problem deserves. We suggest VA throw out the procurement playbook and, instead, partner directly with the private organizations that have led the modern prize contest renaissance and with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to leverage other transactions authority (OTA) and proven success running public prize contests.  

The Promise of Prize Contests 

There's a rich history of dramatic innovations unleashed by high-profile contests and prizes. The most popular historical anecdote dealt with the vexing problem of accurately determining a ship’s longitude at sea, culminating in the eponymous 1714 Longitude Prize. Last century’s dramatic history of flight was animated by contests including the 1908 Michelin Prize (won by Wilbur Wright) and the 1927 Orteig Prize (claimed by Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis). Recently, privately funded contests such as the 2004 Ansari XPrize (resulting in the public debut of then-maverick SpaceX) led to commercial players competing and partnering with, and ultimately, outperforming conventional government contractors.  

Beyond anecdotal success, our research confirms that, for intractable problems, agencies should experiment with prizes and contests. Unlike traditional, bilateral R&D contracts where the government chooses a single business partner, prizes engage a theoretically infinite number of contestants who are only rewarded if and when a contestant satisfies the contest criteria.  Deploying an unlimited number of highly motivated independent research initiatives increases the odds that the government unearths a solution and essentially eliminates the risk of paying for failed experiments.

The magic, of course, lies in incentives, something the government is often hesitant to exploit.  Innovators rush to invest—and risk—their resources in contests to claim hefty financial rewards.  But they equally crave the priceless imprimatur that accompanies success. Winning showers public attention, publicity that a public relations firm might promise but is unlikely to deliver. 

Wrong Pond, Wrong Bait

Given the unique potential of prize contests to generate revolutionary solutions to longstanding problems, we applaud VA for turning to one to address the tragedy of veteran suicide rates. And we agree with VA that to pull off such a feat it would need help organizing and managing the contest. But VA got off on the wrong foot by thinking in conventional procurement terms to outsource the contest. Specifically, VA issued an RFI targeting the likes of those that self-identify as “R408 - SUPPORT- PROFESSIONAL: PROGRAM MANAGEMENT/SUPPORT,” and  “NAICS Code: 541611 - Administrative Management and General Management Consulting Services.” The department reflexively asks for 10-page responses in Times New Roman, 12-point font detailing relevant past performance, income and numbers of employees, federal supply schedule participation, labor categories, and recommendations for appropriate NAICS codes.

By embracing the status quo of procurement contracting, VA turns its back to one of the fundamental promises of prize contests—the opportunity to solve long standing problems by cultivating novel solutions from non-traditional fields. Research suggests that that “the further the focal problem was from the solvers’ field of expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.” The original Longitude Prize winner was a clockmaker, not a navigator. Nicolas Appert, inventor of the modern practice of canning and recipient of Napoleon's 1795 Food Preservation Prize, was a confectioner.  

Unsolicited Advice

Here’s our advice for VA: Throw out the procurement playbook. The whole point of contests is to avoid the conventional “ask.” Ask for the moon, and offer enough money that folks will think: “maybe, just maybe…” Something like this should get contestants’ attention:

Suicide Prevention Grand Challenge

The Veterans Affairs Department offers a prize of up to $1 billion to a competitor that can develop a solution – to be deployed by or in conjunction with the VA – that reduces the rate of veteran suicide by 10 percent or more during a single year. Additional awards of $100 million may be awarded for each additional annual reduction of 10 percent (up to a total of $2 Billion). 

Some may complain that this is so open-ended and ambiguous that it’s impossible to know what the government is looking for. Perfect! VA doesn’t know what it’s looking for; but, hopefully, they’ll recognize it when they see it. Welcome to the wild world of prize contests.  

We have never run a prize contest but VA could easily partner with those that have. Like other federal agencies, the department enjoys statutory authority to administer challenges. But instead of relying on its own authority and procuring a team of management consultants to help administer the prize, we encourage VA to think bigger. Reach out directly to partner with the government entities that have already proven their ability to administer a grand challenge: namely, DARPA. Using DARPA’s OTA flexibility, VA could tap private expertise, such as prize contest sponsors like the XPRIZE Foundation. We suspect that is the kind of consortium that the Strategic Institute could get behind.  

Steven L. Schooner is the Nash & Cibinic Professor of Government Procurement Law at the George Washington University Law School. Nathaniel E. Castellano is an associate in the Government Contracts practice group at Arnold & Porter. The views expressed herein are the authors’ own.